The Snack That Binds Us

by Annu Ross

I have taken night classes before the Gastronomy program– four-hour night classes – and I had always just brought a protein bar or a large cup of coffee. But oh how that sad Luna Bar pales in comparison to real food – delicious, thoughtful, real food. Remembering myself sitting in the dark during a film class squirreling away a snack of pure function, makes snack times in my Gastronomy classes a glittery, magical, happy place.

For those of you who don’t know, many Gastronomy classes run from 6-9 p.m. on weekdays and feature a communally-shared snack during the mid-class break. Students and professors share the responsibility for providing the snack throughout the semester, so that at each class meeting one to three people will bring food for everyone else. In a program focused on food, this seems especially pertinent and necessary as the students spend three hours a night discussing food and all its attendant social, cultural, economic and political implications.

photo by Annu Ross
photo by Annu Ross

It was for these reasons I decided to explore the meanings and functions of snack time for students and professors in the Gastronomy program. I focused my study on the snack times in the two courses I took in Fall 2012: Anthropology of Food, taught by Visiting Professor Carole M. Counihan, Ph.D., and Experiencing Food Through the Senses, taught by Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Gastronomy at MET College Rachel E. Black, Ph.D. The study resulted in my final paper for Anthropology.

Snack time is a unique food event, sort of like a potluck, only a potluck that happens in increments of 10-15 minutes per week over a period of several months. Beyond sustenance (an essential function of the snack and the ultimate reason for its existence), sharing food and the social bonds it creates are at the center of snack time. Giving and receiving food is a form of gift exchange. Sociologist Marcel Mauss conjectured that the practice of gift exchange morally and spiritually binds participants together and implicates them in a cycle of reciprocal generosity; meaning to receive a gift is to be required to return the generosity at a later time. The exchange of food gifts through snack time forms a community within the classroom that depends on reciprocal generosity.

This being a food studies program, food is a regular object of intellectual as well as physical consumption. Hot topics of discussion in Gastronomy courses include: authenticity and cuisine; food policy, history and justice; the state of food and health in the U.S.; how food is tied to identity, memory and meaning; food systems (production, distribution, consumption and waste); and how food plays into class, race and gender hierarchies. As the students and professors contemplate the many meanings and functions of food in society and culture, the classroom snack time is a microcosm of what is being studied in the coursework (which, in all honesty, made it challenging for me to hone my findings down to a surmountable paper).

Photo by Annu Ross
Photo by Annu Ross

With all these weighty topics swimming around in students’ heads, it’s no wonder many students expressed some anxiety around sharing food with “a room full of foodies.” It seems this anxiety was centered mostly on acceptance. Reception by one’s peers was important to the participants and it was not just for fear of the discriminating “foodie.” There is a sense of vulnerability in the people who bring snack – that they are putting themselves out there to be judged and they hope to be accepted and given the stamp of approval.

Despite some anxious awareness around distinction and acceptance, the environment of snack time is affable, social and informal. All of the aforementioned social, cultural, economic and political factors are at play within snack time and there is no doubt that most participants are (anxiously or otherwise) aware of these factors in deciding what to bring for snack, monitoring their behavior during the experience, and observing their peers’ behavior. But it is my view, in particular in the two classes which I studied this semester, that the participants in snack time are focused, above all else, on creating and maintaining an agreeable, informal and egalitarian environment during snack and in the class.

Breaking bread with one’s peers corporeally binds us together and serves as a catalyst for interaction and the development of relationships, creating a rare space that melds the intellectual, physical and emotional.

Annu Ross’s favorite snack is cheese, honey and crusty bread. She just completed the Gastronomy program and relocated to Columbia, South Carolina. You can reach her at annu.ross@gmail.com.

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